Photograph of the week: Wildebeest migration river crossing in the Masai Mara


Every year, between May and December, over 1.5 million wildebeest, 300,000 zebra and a host of other antelope including Eland, impala and Thomson’s gazelles, participate in the world’s greatest wildlife migration. This is the Great Migration.

In search of food and water, following the rains, vast herds move in a general clockwise direction through the Serengeti National Park. At one point, as shown in this photo, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve. In the process, they must navigate waters often in flood; dodge crocodiles in search of dinner; fend off hungry lions and other big cat; and survive what to some might look like a dangerous stampede of beating hooves.

But while the migration may seem like nothing less than frenzied chaos, research has shown a herd of wildebeest – and their followers – possess what is known as ‘swarm intelligence’. So what may look like a stampede or out-of-control mob of heaving horseflesh to the human eye, is in fact the wildebeest systematically exploring and overcoming an obstacle – such as a swollen river – as one.

Of course, the wildebeest, and their brothers in travel, don’t always overcome every obstacle. Every year during the migration around 250,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebra are killed off. Some are taken by said crocodiles, lions and other carnivores, but some are taken by thirst, hunger, and pure exhaustion.

Watching those who survive in action though, is nothing less than spectacular.

Between January and March, half a million blue wildebeest – also known as gnu – are born each year in the Serengeti. This peaks in February when around 8,000 wildebeest are born each day. This influx of new mouths to feed means the migration is an absolute necessity, and with calves able to stand on their own feet within minutes of birth, the herds are ready to move as soon as their DNA tells them to. As for the zebra, well they are welcome to go along as they pose no risk to the wildebeest’s food source: zebra and wildebeest are able to graze in harmony because they each eat different parts of the same type of grass.

And so this 2-million-strong – yes 2 million – mass of flesh sets off on the world’s longest, largest overland migration. The animals will travel a total of 800km or more during each cycle. The herd isn’t always together, though: although the migration is referred to as a “mass movement”, the wildebeest do split up into splinter herds, with smaller packs going in search of their own food, while always circling the main, mega-herd. When you take these smaller, split herds into consideration, the whole migration can cover over half of the entire Serengeti.

Given the vast expanse of the Serengeti, and the fact that the migration can cover up to half of it, how do you know when, and where, you’ll get the best view of the migration? July to November is traditionally thought of as the best season to view the Great Migration, with July and August being peak ‘river-crossing’ time. This is when the wildebeest move into Kenya’s Masai Mara, crossing the Mara River in large numbers.

So plan your visit for July/August, and head for the Mara River. The herds are also always monitored, with guides and pilots sending in daily information, and you can check online to see where the migration is at pretty much all times. Check out Discover Africa’s HerdTracker website.

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Comments (8)

  1. Darius says:

    Such a great shot that gives some idea of the sense of motion and dust. To me it seems frighteningly scary but I suppose for the Wildebeest it is just part of life.

  2. Roger says:

    This is a superb photograph but are there any aerial photographs available of The Great Migration?

    With the arrival of drone photography it must be possible to take some astounding images of this astounding natural event.

  3. Judy Small says:

    The statistics of this migration are quite simply mind-blowing. When you do the maths you are looking at around 2 million creatures on the move. To put it into context that’s like the people of a large city all suddenly deciding to leave their homes and to head in the same direction.

    Though the numbers for the deaths are horrendous, that quarter of a million wildebeest should die every year is a staggering fact.

  4. Piers says:

    I was expecting to see Sir David Attenborough somewhere in the mix. Or maybe Chris Packham?

  5. Claire Smith says:

    You’ve got to give some praise for the photographer. It takes quite a brave photographer to stand there as 1.5 million wildebeest come charging towards you. I think I might have got camera shake if I had been there.

  6. Kirsty says:

    I have always been amazed at the intelligence of creatures to go by land or by air to a whole new destination as though they know exactly where they’re going and why. It’s interesting to read about the ‘swarm intelligence’ of wildebeest, it just shows how clever animals are, even though to us humans their behaviour may seem like chaos or chance. I hadn’t realised the number was so high for those that don’t make it during the migration though, that is so sad. The numbers are shockingly high, in my opinion. I suppose you could say it’s 10% of zebras that don’t make it so it doesn’t seem as extortionately high considering how difficult the journey must be, but 250,000 wildebeest, from 1.5 million, is still a lot. I can image seeing this in action would be an incredible experience.

  7. Zoe says:

    I must remember to visit the Herd Tracker site over the next couple of months. It would be quite a good hobby to follow the Wildebeest as an escape from the herds of London. The Wildebeest may know what they are doing but I just can’t say that of the swarms of humans on the London Underground. Sadly it seems to be everyone for themselves there during rush hour.

  8. Lydia Haigh says:

    I love these Photograph of the Week features. Such a pity that it is Friday and that I have only just around to my weekly fantasy read of A Luxury Travel Blog. Must do better next week.

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